This story first appeared on VICE Canada.
He remembers the cars. The shock he felt seeing a lot of cars rolling down streets surrounded by huge buildings.
“I was seeing that for the first time in my life. On North Korea’s roads, there are no cars. In fact, there is hardly anything.”
It was 12 years ago, but Jun Heo talks about it as if it was yesterday. The day the world as he knew it collapsed. The day he followed two Chinese brokers sent by his mother, crossing the Tumen River between North Korea and China with them.
“All my life prior to that day, I was taught there was no richer country than North Korea. I believed that my country was the best in the world. We had no idea what the outside world looked like. Then I realized—when I saw the cars and the high buildings. At this moment, everything I thought I knew collapsed.”
Jun was raised in misery in Chongjin, a coastal city in North Korea’s northeast. He was 13, in 2004, when his mother decided to flee North Korea to China. About a year later, she had managed to reach South Korea. It’s the ultimate goal for North Korean defectors since, once there, they can ask for refugee status.
Things didn't go so smoothly for Jun, however. A week after he set foot in China, he found himself with about ten other defectors, hiding in a broker’s house near Beijing. They were instructed not to leave the house. It was a trap. The broker came back with armed policemen. Was he a spy, or did he simply sell them to authorities? It didn’t matter. The North Korean defectors had fallen into the hands of Chinese police.
Within a few days, they were sent back to North Korea. So goes the deal between China and its neighbor and ally. Jun Heo was sent to a concentration camp, where, between nights sleeping on the floor of a prison cell, torture and forced work were daily routines. There, Jun was taught that what he had seen in China was a mirage. “I began wondering if I was crazy. If what I had seen was real. Was it a dream?”
In North Korea, a failed defection can lead to a life in captivity. But children generally avoid such punishment. After a few months in captivity, Jun was sent back to his dad in his hometown. His life in North Korea, though, would never be the same.
If Jun tells anything about what he saw in China to his relatives, he’ll rot in jail for the rest of his life. “I couldn’t talk about it to anybody. The secret police were following me. Every morning and every night, I had to report to them.”
The teenager wasn't allowed in school any longer. His interactions with his friends were limited to a minimum. In a town without electricity, every day turned into slow agony between two nights of bad sleep. Like the rest of his family, Jun could barely eat. The food was lacking. Most of his days were spent wandering.
“I remember climbing the same mountain every day for nearly three years. It was one of the only things I was allowed to do.” From up there, he could see, far below him, children going in and out of a school he couldn't attend. There, alone on the mountain, Jun started elaborating his next escape.
In December 2008, three years after being sent back to North Korea, he defected again. Somebody helped him cross the Tumen River. But again, he prefers not to give details about the escape itself. He doesn’t want to give clues to a North Korean regime that has increased border control in 2017, trying to prevent its hungry people from fleeing the country.
Crossing to China is only the first step toward freedom. Jun learned it the hard way during his first escape. He spent his first few months on the other side of the river hiding in Yanji, a city in northeast China, near the border. “I was in danger because I was still so close to North Korea. There are a lot of North Korean spies in Yanji trying to catch defectors. After three months, I was able to reach Shanghai, which was a safer place for me.”
Once in the Chinese megalopolis, the teenager on the run managed to get hired in a restaurant that specialized in Korean food. Jun pretended to be South Korean. Chinese people who couldn't recognize his accent owned the restaurant. They paid him poorly, but for the first time in his life, he could eat his fill. “I was eating all the time. I wanted to try everything.”
From Shanghai, he managed to reach his mother. In 2005, the brokers had given him a phone number to contact her in South Korea. He never forgot it, and, thankfully, she never changed it.
“Despite my job, I was still living in constant fear that my real identity would be discovered, and I would be sent back to North Korea. My mother was going through a hard time financially, but after two years, she had gathered enough money to send a new broker to try to get me to South Korea.”
With the broker’s help, Jun reached Thailand illegally. From there, he asked for a refugee status in South Korea. He spent two months between Chiang Mai and Bangkok before, finally, flying to Seoul.
The Prodigious Refugee
Smiling, and with a fresh haircut and a clean gray shirt, Jun is chatting with me in English over a coffee. It’s June in Seoul, and the sun is shining. The meeting has been set at Teaching North Korean Refugees (TNKR), a nonprofit English school for refugees that the political science student has been attending for more than a year.
Now 27 years old, Jun is the first to admit he’s far from the young adult he was six years ago when he arrived in Seoul. His mother was the one who taught him how to use a smartphone like the one he’s holding, he recalls laughing. “There was no electricity in my hometown,” he feels the need to justify. “It was crazy at first. Even now, I can’t believe I’m using a smartphone. Where I live, I can turn on and off the lights. It’s like living in paradise or in the future.”
His South Korean life is all about studying. His past few years in North Korea left him with an insatiable thirst for learning. “During those three years, I was left watching everybody around me go to school. I guess we never know what we are missing until we are deprived of it. I know what it’s like not being able to study. I don’t want to stop anymore.”
When he arrived in Seoul, he was far from what you would expect from an educated 20-year-old in South Korea. Jun started by studying in an adult private school—the Daesung Institute. As a refugee, he was allowed financial help to pay for the classes. His hard work didn’t go unnoticed, and quickly the school's administration allowed him to attend whatever number of classes he wanted without having to pay extra costs.
“In South Korea, I quickly realized that life was still hard for most North Korean refugees—living in their small apartment and working precarious jobs. I didn’t want to go back to misery. I didn’t want to go back to wandering all day without any goal. I had taken too many risks to be where I was.”
So Jun Heo set himself a goal. He wanted to go to college. Not any college. Seoul University, the best public school in a country where education is a national obsession and where more than 80 percent of young people are enrolling in upper secondary studies. “First of all, I needed to have the equivalent of a South Korean high school degree.”
After that came the Suneung, a standardized scholastic ability test mixing Korean, English, mathematics, geography, history, economics, and politics. Any South Korean student intending to go to college must pass it. The students are then ranked in eight degrees of excellence—the higher, the better.
After a few years of studies in Daesung, Jun was able to rank in the second degree. A modest result for the common Seoul native, but a miracle for a refugee in his situation. Seoul University admissions committee understood that and offered him an interview. It was an incredible chance, Jun explains, since a minimal number of South Koreans are granted an interview at the renowned institution.
“It was the first interview I ever had and my chance at a better life. I was still speaking with my North Korean accent. I told them my story and, just before leaving, I said: ‘I really did my best.’”
A few years later, Jun is now finishing a degree in political science. “I guess I’m lucky. I wake up every day with a smile on my face. But I studied hard to get here. Really hard.”
Socially, the gap between him and his classmates has narrowed a lot. “The difference between us, at first, was life experience. It was nothing insurmountable. I’m still proud of where I come from. I have a unique story to tell.”
There’s one place, however, where Jun will never follow his classmates: up a mountain. Hiking is pretty popular in South Korea, but it’s not for Jun anymore. “I hate the mountains.”
The Suffering of a Nation
Most people, starting with South Koreans, tend to judge North Koreans harshly, Jun believes. On his recently launched YouTube account, his first video shows him standing blindfolded, his arms open, in the streets of Seoul. “I am a North Korean defector. Some people say I am a commie, a spy, or a traitor. I trust you. Do you trust me? Give me a hug,” reads the handwritten sign below him.
Even in South Korea, a country that was one with North Korea about 70 years ago, people tend to put the Kim family and North Koreans in the same boat. More conservative South Koreans are usually against the idea of their government helping North Korean refugees. They suspect refugees of trying to infiltrate South Korea to spy for the North Korean regime.
“Those who are angry about the help the South Korean government is providing me and other refugees, I don’t think they understand.”
Kim Jong-un’s demeanor and North Korea’s nuclear program are spread throughout media around the world. "But what about North Korean people," he asks. What about the true victims of Kim Jong-un?
“Every day, we’re hearing about the Kim family and North Korea’s politics. It’s interesting, but we also have to learn about the people living in North Korea. Every day, human rights are violated.”
Reporting about daily life in North Korea is no easy task for international media, he admits. Medias don’t have access to the country outside of a few official invitations to Pyongyang extended by the regime. The North Korea presented to them then is fake, Jun says. And this is why he and other refugees have the responsibility to speak. “Because we know the truth. We saw, and we lived it.”
“A lot of people I encounter are skeptical that the situation in North Korea is that bad. Some just don’t believe it. But it’s true. Every day, people are starving to death. Literally dying because they have nothing to eat. Every day, people without a roof are sleeping on the ground in train stations. This is common in North Korea. Politicians all around the world want to put an end to the nuclear program. They summon North Korea to stop it. But they should also ask the North Korean regime to treat its people properly.”
One day, Jun says, he’ll tell his story at the UN. He has to do it. Later in the conversation, though, he admits that the United Nations can’t do much about it. “I don’t think they have any power when it comes to North Korea. They can’t force the government to treat its people better. There have to be some changes, but it is so hard. There are no miracle solutions.”
The Korean Reunification Dream
Between Donald Trump’s Twitter threats of launching an attack on North Korea and Kim Jong-un's stinging responses, the specter of a nuclear war has cast its shadow, in the past year, over the Korean Peninsula. One may think that the explosive mix formed by Trump and his North Korean counterpart is quite stressful for a refugee whose family and friends are still mostly living in North Korea.
Jun hasn’t had any contact with his relatives since fleeing his hometown, more than nine years ago. It would be difficult, but possible, to try to reach them via Chinese brokers. The price demanded for such a thing is, however, pretty steep, and such illegal operation can put the people you’re trying to reach in trouble. As of now, Jun prefers not to try.
The possibility of the United States military hitting North Korea, though, doesn’t scare him. Or, I should say, it doesn’t scare him more than the present situation. “If there is a war, my friends could die under the bombs. But war or not, they are going to die. They are starving. They work 15 hours a day. A war couldn’t be any worse.”
Still, Jun doesn’t think a military intervention is the way to achieve his dream of a Korean reunification. The fall of the actual North Korean regime is going to have to pass through China. “China is essential to North Korean politics. The United States doesn't have any power over North Korea, but China does. The day China will want to see a change in North Korea, it is going to happen. It’s the only way to free my friends.
The fall of the Kim family in itself wouldn’t be enough, he estimates. “There would be another dictator taking over power.” North Korea’s political elite are living a privileged life, and they would make sure that whoever replaces Kim Jong-un keeps the system serving them in place. “The elite doesn’t want things to change.”
There will be a reunification one day, he swears. This is what keeps him going every day. This is why he’s studying North Korean politics. This is why he wants to earn a master’s degree in the United States or in Australia and specialize in social services and welfare.
“I think of my hometown as the worst and the best place in the world. I want to go back there more than anything. One day, I want to be the leader of my hometown and help my people out of poverty. If there is no reunification, I can become a politician here, in South Korea. But I have time. I think I have another ten years of schooling ahead of me. I am not ready yet. But I have to go back one day. My father and my friends are still there. I have to help them. The reunification would be the first step, but North Koreans also have to change themselves. Otherwise, there will never be a real change.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE CA.